Seven years ago, Bill Fulton and I wrote a lengthy story for Governing magazine about San Bernardino County. We didn't write the headline, but it was appropriate: "Addicted to Corruption."
Apparently, the county still has not entered rehab.
On Tuesday, May 12, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors released an investigative report into the county assessor's office. The report says Bill Postmus – who resigned as assessor in February after an extended leave of absence, an admission of drug addiction and lots of bickering with the Board of Supervisors – along with his appointed staff, ran the office as "a personal political operation fully funded by San Bernardino taxpayers." Postmus and his lieutenants spent virtually no time actually assessing property values, according to the report.
Also on the 12th, the Board of Supervisors sued Postmus and five other individuals to get back taxpayers' money. Among the other five are Rancho Cucamonga Councilman Rex Guiterrez, a former Postmus aid who was also fired from his job with the county's Economic Development Agency. The board's news release, the investigative report by former federal prosecutor John Hueston and the civil suit are available on the county's website.
Back when we were reporting our story for Governing, the county was pursuing similar lawsuits against two former county administrators, the former treasurer-tax collector and about 20 other individuals and legal entities. The county eventually got more than $10 million in restitution. Careers ended. People went to prison. (Our story was reprinted in a book from CQ Press.)
Because of the county's ongoing civil suits, as well as state and federal criminal prosecutions, we originally thought our story was going to explain how a local government pulls itself out of corruption scandals and rebuilds its integrity and reputation. We ended up less than fully convinced the county was going to change its ways. Why? Because Supervisor Gerald Eaves was still in office despite having recently pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. Because two reformers brought in by the board – a highly regarded county administrator and an ethics consultant – gave up because they were convinced the elected leadership was not serious about reform. (I still remember the ethics expert, Michael Josephson, telling me, "There was a big kill-the-messenger situation.") Because I hadn't been in town more than few hours before people started leaking damning internal documents to me.
Besides Eaves, one of the other members of the Board of Supervisors at that time was Postmus. They made up two-thirds of what I would characterize as the pro-corruption bloc on the board, which has since turned over entirely.
In a written statement released this week, Postmus described the latest investigation as "a taxpayer-funded hit piece." Former Assistant Assessor Adam Aleman, among those sued by the county, said in a separate statement that the political activity in the assessor's office was no different from "what occurs in the offices of other county elected officials." Among the things Aleman reportedly did on county time was edit the Republican website www.redcounty.com (which has had little to say about situation).
The level of corruption on which we reported seven years was shocking. Not only was the county implicated, but so were the cities of San Bernardino and Colton; some councilmembers in both cities were indicted. Nearly as shocking to me, though, was the lack of public outrage. "Good government" groups and true watchdogs were virtually nonexistent. I couldn't even get the local League of Women Voters to call me back. It was almost as if government corruption was an accepted part of the landscape.
I know there are honest people in San Bernardino County, and I feel badly for the hardworking civil servants who get splashed by the mud. Still, the Postmus situation suggests that we got it right seven years ago. San Bernardino County smelled bad then. The stench remains overwhelming today. Bill Postmus will not be the last government official in the county to fall amid scandal.
– Paul Shigley